Thailand's junta chief on Monday dismissed rumours of an impending coup as "fake news", as speculation ricocheted across a kingdom unsettled by the ill-fated political union between a princess and a party allied to the powerful Shinawatra clan. Conjecture has coursed through Thailand since Friday when the Thai Raksa Chart party proposed Princess Ubolratana, King Maha Vajiralongkorn's elder sister, as a candidate for premier after the March 24 election. Hours later, a royal command from the king appeared to put a pin in her unprecedented political aspirations. The slapdown by an unassailable monarch - protected by some of the world's harshest royal defamation laws - who has never addressed the public in such strong terms, set off a chain reaction. A chastened Thai Raksa Chart, a key pillar in the election strategy of billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, swiftly agreed to comply with the command.
Election authorities meeting Monday are expected to discuss whether the use of the princess's name was unconstitutional, a first step towards dissolving the party. Adding to the uncertainty, chatter of an impending coup against the ruling junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha and a major change in army top brass has billowed out, with the hashtag #coup trending in the top 10 in Thai Twitter. But on Monday the gruff former general, who masterminded a putsch against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, in 2014, tried to stop it short. Thailand's generals have a penchant for coups, backroom plotting and factional struggles. They have grabbed power 12 times since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, including against existing juntas seen to have over-stepped their mark.
Prayut, a gruff ex-army chief turned junta head, has agreed to stand for premier after the election and is aided by an army-scripted constitution. But critics say he has personalised power and outstayed his welcome with a public wearied by his finger-jabbing style. The king appointed a new army chief, Apirat Kongsompong, last year from a rival faction of the army to Prayut and his junta allies. Recent days have seeded unease, with the first election in eight years now seemingly dependent on behind-the-scenes power plays by the elite. Meanwhile, the fate of Thai Raksa Chart hangs in the balance. The party, a second to the Thaksin political powerhouse Pheu Thai, was expected to help the Shinawatra machine secure a majority in the 350-seat lower house. But it is under intense pressure following its bid to bring in the princess.